Elegi Varde

[Miasmah; 2009]

Styles: dark ambient, drone, modern composition
Others: Max Richter, Gavin Bryars, Murcof, Terje Isungset, Gyorgy Ligeti

With Varde, Norwegian composer Tommy Jansen, a.k.a. Elegi, has launched the sequel to Sistereis, attempting once again to investigate the tribulations of the first polar explorers. Throughout the record, capacious echo, gurgling bass frequencies, and morose string motifs evoke wintry landscapes, calling forth the dual sense of loneliness and achievement that must have burdened the explorers who crossed those landscapes. Solitary piano notes resonate for seven, eight seconds, before succumbing to the rippling of somber cello harmonies and windy atmospheres that alternately whistle and moan. Ominous crunches bring to mind the strain of wood, metal, and bone in extreme temperatures. Occasionally, a shuttered voice will be heard in the distance, akin to the muffled speech transmitted by a shortwave radio; and every so often, there are heartbreaking dashes of warm, civilized sound in the midst of the polar suites: “Fandens Bre” concludes with a shadowed sample of a military march, while “Angekok” opens with the layered gurgling of infants.

As the album progresses, Jansen proves he is capable of a tableaux of varying size and density. Some pieces have the expansive weight of an arctic vista, like Anselm Kiefer canvasses blasted with snow. Others, such as “Arvesoelv,” thread decaying notes over flat tapping and scraping, bringing out the frightful intimacy of a battered camp scene. Jansen’s range of focus, from the vast to the minute, points to perhaps the cleverest and most thought-provoking aspect of Varde — the inversion of the mimetic relationship between nature and machine. The artist uses machines to represent the sounds of the natural world and then employs acoustic instruments to imitate the explorers’ equipment. A clipped piano note, for example, sounds like the alert signal from some kind of thermometric device, while the keening of disguised synthesizers recalls cooing whales and the vicious lyricism of the arctic wind.

This spiraling dialectic between nature and machine animates the drama underneath the album’s frosty surface. Jansen, like the polar explorers portrayed in his music, is attempting to capture a segment of the world through mechanical means. In this context, the album’s title makes sense. Varde, Norwegian for “cairn,” may be Jansen’s humble attempt to mark the musical landscape with a small monument. This hard, porous heap of songs may not look like much from a distance, but its stark artistry can be compelling up close.

1. Varde
2. Skrugard
3. Svanesong
4. Arvesoelv
5. Drivis
6. Uranienborg
7. Fandens Bre
8. Skyggespill
9. Angekok
10. Raak
11. Soevnens Kvelertak
12. Den Store Hvite Stillhet

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